Tips to Keep Your Stress and Heart in Check During the Holidays

Published February 2, 2017

By Haysam Akkad, MD

The hustle and bustle of the holidays can produce its share of stress and anxiety. And for some, the holidays can even trigger depression. Those of us in the medical community suspect that this is not good for your emotional state or your heart. 

Haysam Assad, MD

We typically see a higher incidence of heart attacks in the winter and we think this may have to do with overindulgence during the winter months. Overeating, smoking and drinking – they can all take a toll on your heart. Combine that with no exercise and the emotional stress that accompanies the holidays and you have a recipe that can spell disaster for some.

Here’s why. Stress, anxiety and depression tend to increase the level of stress-related hormones called cortisones in your blood which can cause hypertension, increased blood sugar levels, high lipid levels and an elevated heart rate. If you are chronically stressed or depressed, these risk factors can lead to a higher incidence of coronary artery disease by causing a thickening of the blood vessels. This can make you ripe for a heart attack, especially after experiencing a stressful event.

And there’s more:

The risk of heart attack increases during cold weather activities like snow shoveling, skiing or walking through heavy, wet snow. The extra physical exertion can cause a sudden increase in blood pressure and heart rate while the cold air can cause a constriction of the blood vessels and decrease oxygen to the heart, triggering a potentially fatal heart attack.

People with chronic stress are at increased risk for tachycardia – a rapid heart rate – which can result in sudden cardiac death.

People who are recovering from a heart attack and also have depression, have a less successful recovery and a higher risk of experiencing future heart attacks than people without depression.

People who are stressed or depressed are more likely to engage in negative lifestyle habits such as smoking, drinking and overeating, all of which increase your heart disease risk.

When we talk about stress, the individuals at greatest risk are those who work in high-stress jobs with excessive hours of 60 hours or more a week. They are often sleep deprived and have no time for exercise. These are individuals whose cardiovascular health should be monitored closely.

I also recommend that people who have suffered a cardiac event be tested and treated for depression, if appropriate. Treatment of depression as well as lifestyle risk factors can help reduce your future heart disease risk.

While you can’t always remove all sources of stress or sadness from your life, you can take steps to cope in healthier ways:

Use positive self-talk. For example, instead of saying, “I can’t do this,” say, “I’ll do my best.”

Plan ahead. Make sure you allot time for shopping, baking and other holiday activities. Plan your menus ahead of time and make lists for food and gift shopping to prevent last minute scrambling.

Take time to do something for yourself every day, even if it’s just 15 minutes. Read, go for a walk, take a yoga class or listen to soothing music.

Exercise – even during the holidays and winter months. Physical activity lifts your mood, strengthens your cardiovascular health and will help you burn some of those extra calories consumed during the holidays.

Don’t use the holidays as an excuse to overindulge. Set limits ahead of time and stick with them! Eating a healthy snack before you go to holiday parties can help you keep your appetite in check.

Structure your day so that you can work on the most difficult tasks during the time of the day when you are at your peak.

If you are feeling particularly stressed, identify where the stress is originating and try to make adjustments in your life to diffuse the source of the stress.

Need a heart check or help dealing with depression or anxiety? Schedule an appointment with one of our physicians by calling 800-922-0000.